Tournament Tales: Assistant Coach John Kuester

The month of March is a hoops junkie’s heaven, with the Cavaliers making their final push towards the playoffs and the NCAA Tournament barreling toward the Sweet 16.

Several members of the Cavaliers family have been fortunate enough to play in the NCAA Tournament, and we’d like to bring some of their stories to life in Tournament Tales.

Last week, we spoke to Dwayne Jones, who’s St. Joe’s club went into the tourney with an undefeated regular season record. Today, we’re going to look into the coaching ranks – to Assistant Coach John Kuester, one of the integral pieces of the North Carolina team that clawed to the 1977 NCAA Championship Game against Marquette.

Kuester, voted the club’s best defensive player in both of his final years as a Tarheel, was that year’s Most Valuable Player in the ACC Tournament and the Eastern Regional of the Big Dance. His Tarheels fought to the Final, but in Al McGuire’s emotional final game at Marquette, Dean Smith, was denied his first national title as Butch Lee led Marquette to the 67-59 win.

It was a postseason run that the man they call “Coach Q” will never forget …

You were lucky enough to play in the NCAA Tournament Championship and you were MVP of the Eastern Regionals. Talk about that journey.

John Kuester: Well, I was very fortunate. That was 1977. We had a great run because we had a number of things that put us in a position to win the ACC Tournament. We got through the Eastern Regional all the way to the Finals.

We opened the Eastern Regional against Notre Dame on St. Patrick’s Day and we were down 14 points with 10 minutes to go. We came back and won that game and then played a very powerful Kentucky team.

Phil Ford had hurt his elbow and he couldn’t play. Walter Davis was coming back from surgery on his finger and Tom LeGarde had a knee injury and was out for the year. And these guys were first round picks. So we had a number of guys really step it up.

It was a total team effort. We had a group of guys who just bonded extremely well with each other and it was a great journey.

That year’s Championship was the famous “four corners” game against Marquette. What are your memories from that game?

Kuester: Marquette was up 10 at the half, we came back and took the lead and we had never lost that year when we went into the “four corners.”

So we went to the four corners and a couple things happen that didn’t go our way – and that allowed them to win the game. People say it allowed them to rest, but basically when we went to that environment, teams ended up fouling us and we’d beat them at the line.

I know everyone was emotional about it being Al McGuire’s last game, but it was also a very emotional game for us because we wanted to get Dean Smith his first NCAA title.

What makes North Carolina basketball so special?

Kuester: It’s a wonderful school to go to, it’s got tremendous tradition. But Dean Smith is the reason I went there.

Coach Smith stood for everything I believe in when it comes to basketball. The way you compete, the way you treat people, the way you demand a lot from people and yourself. It was an honor to play for him, and of course, having gone there, there’s a tremendous amount of loyalty amongst all North Carolina players. It’s a very strong fraternity.

Coach Smith always preached the tradition. We would be doing stretching or doing defensive slide drills and he would always remind us that George Karl or Doug Moe or Mitch Head called and was talking about life in the NBA. He always tried to keep us abreast of what was going on with Carolina guys in the pros.

He was special. As good a coach as he was – and, to me, he’s the best that’s ever coached in the college game – that’s how good a person he was. I was blessed to have gone there.

How did you choose North Carolina?

Kuester: I had a number of ACC scholarship offers, but I knew I wanted to go to North Carolina as soon as they started recruiting me. My high school had a great tradition, as well.

Not many people can say they played for the best high school coach and the best college coach. And I was fortunate enough to play for both. My high school coach was Warren Rutlege – who won 13 straight Catholic school championships in Richmond, Virginia. And he set the groundwork for me to have a wonderful four years at North Carolina.

What’s different about the NCAA Tournament today compared to when you played?

Kuester: In the beginning – my first two years – the only team that was allowed to go to the Tournament was the ACC champion. So my first and second year, I mean, you talk about a competitive league.

My freshman year was the year N.C. State beat a great UCLA team for the NCAA Championship. And Maryland, a team which was great, lost in the ACC finals in one of the arguably best games that’s ever been played. And they got shut out of the tourney.

In my era, people down south, if you won the ACC Tournament, that’s all that mattered. (Almost more so than the NCAA Tournament.) It’s like OSU-Michigan up here.

Of course, that’s changed. As competitive as the ACC and the Tournament still is – the Big Dance is what it’s all about.

Do I need to ask you who you like in this year's Tournament?

Kuester: Nope.